“I forget,” Maami said nonchalantly, stirring more whiskey into her tea. “It was such a long time ago, anyway. Let the dead sleep, čhaskeri čhaj!” Turning her face to the fire, she batted me away. “Don’t you have something to do?”
She always answered this way, whenever I asked about relatives in Slovakia or our history. Bisterkerdjom – I completely forget – as though it had been entirely wiped from her memory. I’ve heard it said often that Roma are a “people without history”, that we just don’t care about where we came from (and therefore, do not care about where we are or where we’re going). An absence of history = an absence of identity.
Our response to the collective traumas that befell our people mirrored that of the states in which we lived – suppression and denial. Just as we moved on with our lives, so the nations around us moved on with theirs. After the Holocaust, my family did not know what to say to one another. How do you talk about something so horrific? Metaphors about hungry smoke, wolves, and butterflies trickled through their conversations, but nothing was really ever said outright. They simply pushed it away, deep in the corners of their collective mind.
Similarly, we have consistently been erased from Holocaust history and remembrance. Politics of memory – suppressing remembrance of these traumas by burying them deep in the political system – assigned our experiences to oblivion. However, also at that time, there were no Romani in strong enough political or economic positions to challenge this forgetting – nor were there large numbers of survivors able to force this remembrance. Some areas saw almost complete devastation of the Roma population.
National cultural policies and an education system fortified by media coverage are instrumental in maintaining this public suppression. Roma have always been excluded from media coverage, education, and remembrance of the Holocaust. These politics of memory affect cultures and countries in many ways – there is a polarization between those who suffered (and want to be remembered) and those who did not. It dehumanizes survivors, because there is less communication, understanding, and tolerance between these polarized groups. Particularly in the case of Romani, we were never seen as “human” to begin with, so our deaths during the Holocaust are often not even seen as a loss of “human” life, making inclusion in memorial events almost impossible. Trauma is also trans-generational – children of Holocaust survivors tend to inherit the fear and lack of trust and so maintain their polarized position.
Romani history has often been traumatic – from hanging, branding, rape, forced sterilization, repeated humiliation to slavery, deportation, being hunted by Einsatzgruppe and slaughtered during the Holocaust. Our histories are not easy to remember. However, this month, almost seventy-one years after WWII and thirty-six years after its creation, President Obama and the United States Holocaust Memorial Council finally appointed its first Romani member in decades, Dr. Ethel Brooks. Following its founding in 1979, it took seven years for the sixty-five member Holocaust Council to appoint even one Romani representative (and they served for a period of four years). Now, almost 30 years later, we finally have representation once more.
Also this month, the United Nations Holocaust Memorial Ceremony – International Day of Commemoration in memory of the victims of the Holocaust will include a Romani speaker for the third time in its history, Zoni Weisz, a Sinti Holocaust survivor.
“Vaš brišindeske,” Maami said, because of the rain. No matter what I asked her, the answer was always the same – why did you leave? because of the rain. Why did Great Grandmother die? because of the rain. My family history shrouded in smoke and rain and silence.
But, maybe now, with the appointment of Ethel and speeches from survivors like Zoni, it will finally stop raining.